Archive for January, 2014


Like many of my colleagues, I was driven to Twitter by two complementary forces: my vanity and my boss. I’ve regarded it as a clubhouse, a research tool and a venue for unloading surplus opinion. It has never really seemed like a private place, and I try to behave there more or less the way I do in the newspaper, refraining from swearing or expressing political opinions and keeping my crazier thoughts to myself. Which I suppose makes the thoughts I do express there fair game for the same kind of treatment as all my other published thoughts. They can be appropriated, parodied, parroted, misquoted and ignored. The last option is a writer’s greatest nightmare of course, but it can also be a source of comfort.

A.O. Scott, “‘The Collision of Movie-Awards Campaigning and Paracritical Chirping'”, The New York Times Magazine (19 January 2014), 47.

If institutions are performing their mission well, and their mission is still relevant, they will thrive. If either of these is not the case, let’s not put them on life support. American Judaism is in need of revival now, and it behooves us to look to whatever energy is coming forward and encourage it without the constant check on how it will or won’t support an existing institution.

Elie Kaunfer, “The Real Crisis in American Judaism”, The Jewish Week (7 April 2010), 14.

The days when Jewish institutions could count on people showing up are over. The days when newcomers to a community could be counted on to look for a school for their kids, a local market for food, and a synagogue to join are over. The days when a Federation could count on the vast majority of Jews to give a gift are over. The days when a Jewish Community Center was actually the center of the community are over. In this new reality, another program will not meet the need of the moment. If Jewish organizations are to survive and thrice, what they offer will need to change dramatically…and soon.

Jewish institutions must rethink their value proposition. If the “value” offer is a calendar of programs, access to Jewish information, gyms, pools, health clubs, cultural events, even activities to “repair the world”, our people can get all that for much less money than the high cost of Jewish institutional affiliation. But, if our value proposition is the opportunity to be in face-to-face meaningful relationship with Jews and Judaism in a relational community that offers a path to meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing, we have a shot at engaging our people….

Dr. Ron Wolfson, Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2013), 32.

This boycott continues the anti-Zionist war on academia. Most academics seek intellectual precision — yet calling Israel an apartheid state sloppily makes apartheid mean “apartness,” separation, sanitizing its ugly racial distinctions while falsely making the national conflict between Israelis and Palestinians seem racial. Most scholars recognize the world’s complexity — yet regarding Israel, simplistic sloganeering and one-sided finger pointing prevail. Most intellectuals defend ideas’ permeability — yet boycotts impose harsh borders in what should be a seamless cerebral world. Most teachers applaud diversity, yet boycotts shut down debate. And most professors aspire toward scholarly objectivity, yet targeting Israel — especially given Palestinian terrorism, extremism, and authoritarianism, along with so many other countries’ crimes — reeks of bias and a particular, historic prejudice, anti-Semitism.

I hate making this argument. But how else can we explain this disproportionate, one-sided, pile-on against this one country that is also the world’s only Jewish state?

The boycott call is also politically counter-productive. It emboldens Palestinian rejectionists, enrages the Israeli right, demoralizes the center, and undermines the left. Compromise cannot occur in the lynch mob atmosphere the ASA endorsed.

Gil Troy, “Why I’m Boycotting the American Studies Association”, The Jewish Week (27 December 2013), 20.

Professionals work out a price for a project, agree to the terms and then an organization renegotiates and offers less or keeps adding to the scope of the project without adding to the payment. Organizations offer what they call “standard” fees when they actually pay different fees depending on the speaker, sometimes offering less, often if the professional is a woman. Educators and consultants finish presenting and are told, “We don’t cut checks for five weeks after the conference/lecture/weekend.” Really? Should this young rabbi have waited five weeks to give the talk?

Organizations often negotiate fees as if in a shuk. It is undignified and unprofessional. If you have to “remind” organizations to pay multiple times, it is embarrassing and disrespectful. A young woman shared that she felt so uncomfortable about this that she was willing to go without payment just to make the bad feeling go away. This, too, is a form of oppression.

We have to learn to take the sting out of conversations about money. The one who hires must bring up payment right away and create uniformity and consistency around payment policies. Payment should be rendered upon completion of services, not weeks or months later. Forget manning-up. It’s time to mensch-up.

Erica Brown, “Pay Today”, The Jewish Week (3 January 2014), 46.

Showing compassion to the world is very important, but not at the expense of feeding hungry Jews. If we don’t step up, no one else will.
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Hillel said. But then he added, “But when I am for myself alone, what am I?”
The tension undeniably exists for every single Jew. The dilemma of how to triage our precious charity resources must weigh upon all of us. For us to see the horrors of recent natural disasters in Haiti and Japan and do nothing is surely inhuman and un-Jewish. But to make Japan and Haiti our primary focus and to forget about Israel’s needs and the needs of our brothers and sisters around the world is to say that my brother and sister are no different from the stranger, and that, too, is wrong.

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin, “Give Until It Hurts”, The Jewish Journal (29 April – 5 May 2011), 33.

What has changed with Orthodox women in the last two decades in reality is astounding. Some of the initiatives started by JOFA and other forward-thinking organizations took hold. Some didn’t. Some failed miserably. But some of the vision “leaked” out to other communities and organizations, and change happened where we least expected it.

We started noticing that the haredi communities that denounce feminism had their own feminist issues: women were standing up to their leadership about domestic violence and sexual abuse and even agitating in order to get into Hatzolah, the volunteer ambulance corps. Places that 20 years ago would not have considered celebrating a bat mitzvah or a girl’s birth were regularly holding those celebrations. Women’s tefillah (prayer groups), which had been seen as crazy and “out there,” became the more conservative bat mitzvah alternative to partnership minyanim (where women lead parts of the service).

In Israeli newspapers after Simchat Torah, observers were struck at seeing women dancing with Torahs in places you’d never think possible. And no one batted an eye. And even on the issue of agunot, or women unable to get Jewish divorces from recalcitrant husbands, which is seen by so many as the big failure because we have yet to develop a systemic solution, the Orthodox community has made incredible strides. It sits front and center on the communal agenda, and different rabbinic courts and organizations are using their clout to try to solve the problem case by case.

The seismic change in the community has been women’s learning. Twenty years ago there were a handful of women learning torah sheba’al peh (the Oral Law). Today there are dozens of women’s programs that teach Mishnah and Talmud. No one seems to think twice about it.

Bat Sheva Marcus, “How Change Happens”, The Jewish Week (6 December 2013), 23.

…there are competing understandings of what it means to be a Jewish state, both in regard to relations with non-Jewish Israelis as well as concerning the place of Jewish religion and tradition in the legal system and in the public sphere. It is also impossible to ignore the fact that the discussion of the status of non-Jews in Israel takes place in the context of a longstanding conflict, in which the very legitimacy of the state is challenged. These should not be reasons for ignoring the need to create a common language between Jewish tradition and human rights. Even Jews who are wary of innovations in Jewish law must understand the challenge to Jewish tradition of a modern state based on democratic principles, and formulate an appropriate Jewish response.

Kalman Neuman, “Equal Under the Law?”, The Jewish Week (3 January 2014), 25.

First developed in the 1990s in an attempt to protect women from becoming agunot, halachic prenuptial agreements stipulate that the couple in a dissolving marriage must come before a predetermined court of Jewish law. If the man refuses to provide the get, he must continue to support her, typically in the range of $150 per day — an agreement enforceable in civil court.

Yet while halachic prenuptial agreements have been touted as a solution to the agunah problem, they have hardly been a panacea — because many are reluctant to sign them in the first place.

“Those who are most likely to need to use it are least likely to sign it,” said Rabbi Jeremy Stern, director of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, or ORA, which says it deals with more than 150 cases of agunot per year.

The problem is unique to the Orthodox world, because non-Orthodox movements have rejected or found ways around traditional rules that give husbands practically all the leverage. And, frustratingly for advocates on behalf of agunot, most Orthodox couples hail from segments of the community that aren’t interested in halachic prenups.

“The problem is in the black-hat and haredi community, where they don’t have prenups or rabbis don’t agree to enforce the idea of having a prenup,” said Stanley Goodman, director of an organization known as GET – Getting Equal Treatment.

Talia Lavin, “‘The Prenup is Not Foolproof’”, The Jewish Week (6 December 2013), 14.

Hillel is an organization, and organizations have rules. Those who don’t want to follow those rules can always opt out and build their own organization.

Shmuel Rosner, “The Swarthmore Rebellion”, The Jewish Journal (20 December 2013 – 2 January 2014), 12.